Tragic Backstory

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19   Psalm 24     Ephesians 1:3-14     Mark 6:14-29
As a media rich culture we produce and consume vast and untold amounts of magazines, books, music and video.  It seems that we are constantly consuming or communicating about some idea or some opinion about recent events.  Whether you blog, tweet, pin – or even read one of those newspaper thingies – we are involved in constant conversations about the world and its events.  And when we aren’t doing that, some of us love to escape the world in a good book or even a terrible movie.

And nothing draws us in like a tragic back-story – you know, the story before the story.  “Years ago you served my father in the clone wars,” said the princess, and we’ve been hooked to one of the most powerful film franchises in the universe for 38 years.  Perhaps it is because a good back-story makes us feel like their story could be our story.  We can believe a character’s pain is real when we know that it isn’t the first time they’ve been hurt.  We can feel their relief more deeply when we know that they have experienced loss.

Sometimes the back-story helps explain, or at least describe, why certain choices have been made.  Sometimes it helps us understand how a character might feel that there was no choice to make.  In terms of our own experiences, psychologists describe these events as a part of our nature and our experience of nurture – our natural predispositions and the events and experiences we live through.

As we go through life, we find ways to cope with life’s events.  Sometimes our actions are healthy.  Sometimes they are not.  Although there are entire genres of literature to help you decide which is which, I believe our texts today offer some insight that none of them can – if we consider the back-story as well.

First is the story of David dancing wildly before the Arc of the Covenant as he brings it home to the royal city of Jerusalem.  In the story before the story we learn that this is the “ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.”  That matters.  It matters because this is not a story about David making a scene.  This is a story about the Holiness of God – and God’s holiness will not be upstaged.

Just three months earlier he had gathered 30,000 of his finest troops and formed what probably looked like the biggest Second Line in the history of Mardi Gras!  Uzzah – driving the special, new cart with his brother Ahio – tries to steady the Ark when the Oxen stumble and God strikes him dead.  What?  Party over.  Special dance moves overshadowed.  Tragic back-story established.

David then chooses Obed-edom’s house to stash the Ark, because he sure isn’t taking that thing into the city. After all that he has been through to unite the tribes of Judah and Israel, he simply wasn’t going allow himself to be that vulnerable.  The text doesn’t tell us of how Obed-edom’s family felt about this or if they volunteered or were “voluntold”.

I guess it really doesn’t matter.  They were called, and they came.  Obed-edom was blessed while Uzah’s father, Abinadad, mourned.  David realized that the Ark was not only a source of suffering, but also blessing, and he brought it home.  But this time he began from a position of reverence.  Barely six steps into the journey they stopped and made sacrifices.  David stripped himself of anything that made him appear better than anyone else, and he danced and praised God! And then he made sure that everyone who came near had something to eat.

Of course, this is the same David that would later act like a scoundrel.  But his back-story remains one of reverence.  His compass – moral center – is found in recognizing that God is holy and that faith moves us from suffering to blessing. 

And then, on the other hand, we have poor old King Herod.  Herod tells his own back-story when he hears about the wonderful things that Jesus is doing and says, “It must be John the Baptist – whom I beheaded – risen from the dead!”  Of course he would think it was John.  Those who have the most regrets expect to pay for them more severely. 

In some ways, it may as well have been John.  Jesus proclaimed the same message as John.  “Repent!  The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Believe the good news!”  How can this news be good to a man like Herod?  He stole his brother’s wife.  He locked up the only person who stood up to him for it.  He paraded his daughter in front of his crooked allies (most likely Roman officials), and when he offered her a reward he was bound by his own word to give her anything she wanted.

Was he hoping to marry her off?  Was he trying to protect her by giving her a portion of his kingdom?  Was he simply a sad, drunk, Roman puppet – a shadow of his father, Herod the Great (who was actually a terrible man)?  Who knows?  What we do know is that this barbaric act made it clear – possibly to everyone but Herod – that Jesus was not simply John’s disciple.  It made it clear that Jesus was the one that John said would “baptize with the Holy Spirit of God!” 

The beheading of John was the antithesis of the reverence of David.  It was a Jewish King acting to preserve his own interests instead of acting to preserve the people of God.  And yet, even his failings proved the presence of God in the ministry of Jesus.  Even his tragic back-story is woven into the story of God’s desires for each of us and all of creation.

Just as Paul told the church in Ephesus, God is working “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  This has been the plan from the beginning, and it was revealed most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus!  Not only does Jesus give us hope that we will be included in the gathering of all things, but we have the opportunity to celebrate it!  We have the ability to look at the life we live and know that it is woven into a back-story that includes God’s choice.

And God’s choice is the same now as it was then.  God’s choice is to love us and to offer us redemption again and again and again.  Paul wasn’t playing around when he chose the word “redeem”.  In the Greek form, it specifically refers to the idea of “buying someone back - as from slavery.”  He wanted them to know – and God wants us to know – that no matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, God’s story is the one that defines us.

That may sound idealistic, but Jeni Stepanek is someone who knows what this means.  You may have seen her or her son, Mattie a few years back.  Mattie was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy that later became evident in Jeni as well.  As early as age 3, Mattie began to compose poems to Jeni about the hopefulness that he felt for life.  Eventually these were published, and Mattie and Jeni began to spread Mattie’s message of hope.  His message wasn’t, “I need a million dollars for medical research.”  His message was, “Life is precious and good and beautiful.  We each have a ‘heartsong’ to sing.  Each one is different, and that’s what makes the world a beautiful place.”  Mattie sang his song for 13 years, and now others continue to sing it for him.

While it is sad that such a beautiful soul was trapped in a torturous body and taken at such a young age, I believe that he lived as someone who knew what it meant to “live for the praise of God’s glory.”  In just 13 years he published 7 books, communicated with dignitaries, and established a foundation for peace and reconciliation.  And at the center of it was a belief that God was with him, and that “Even though the future seems far away, it is actually beginning right now.”  I think the Apostle Paul would agree.

In tragedy and triumph, God is with us.  God holds our past, our present, and our future, and God weaves them into the story of redemption and hope that moves us always and forever from reverence into service and from suffering into hope.  The question is, will we remain perplexed over the will of God and self-centered like Herod, or will we become reckless in our praise and invested in our care for others like David?  My hope is that each of us might find a way to demonstrate God’s grace in our time apart as clearly as we do when we are together, and may God be glorified in all that we say and do.  Amen.
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